Oct 15, 2020 - Technology

Hunter Biden story trips social media misinformation alarms

Illustration of a stack of newspapers with a siren on top.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In 2016, hacked emails and foreign meddling shaped the political fight, and social media took much of the blame. Afterwards, the platforms designed circuit breakers to avoid a repeat in 2020.

What's happening: Those breakers tripped Wednesday at both Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of a New York Post story that reported allegations about Joe Biden's son Hunter, based on what the paper said were emails provided to it Sunday by Rudy Giuliani.

Yes, but: The action by the platforms drew a swift backlash from conservatives — with the ironic result of drawing more attention to the material.

The big picture: For years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has positioned Facebook as a free-speech champion. "When it's not absolutely clear what to do, we should err on the side of free expression," he said almost exactly a year ago in a speech at Georgetown.

Facebook announced Wednesday that it would slow the distribution of the Post story while its third-party fact checkers reviewed it.

  • By taking this slow-down approach, Facebook is answering critics who have pointed out that its take-down policies often kick in only after malicious posts have been seen by millions.

Meanwhile, Twitter took even stronger action, removing all tweets that linked to the Post story.

  • Twitter cited its "Hacked Material Policy," which says Twitter doesn't "permit the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information, may put people in physical harm or danger, or contains trade secrets."

What they're saying: Conservatives in Congress and beyond immediately protested.

  • "This is a Big Tech information coup. This is digital civil war," tweeted Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at the New York Post.

Between the lines: The nature of the Post story, which relies on a trove of emails claimed to have been found on a laptop at a repair shop and funneled to Giuliani, echoes the "hack and leak" scenario that disrupted the 2016 election — and that newsrooms and digital platforms have been on guard against during this election cycle.

  • Many experts counsel stopping hoaxes and disinformation campaigns early, before they have gone viral.
  • The Post story rings all the foreign-disinformation alarms in the book.
  • But it's also the product of a long-established, though also heavily partisan, media outlet, and the swift action against it will rankle a lot of journalists.

Of note: While some have posited that Facebook is moderating conservative content more aggressively as prospects for a Biden win increases, one Facebook veteran told Axios that's not a factor.

  • According to the source, the company and Zuckerberg are concerned about the possibility of violence around the election, and that's paving the way for stronger content moderation moves.

Our thought bubble: The imminent election and the frenzy of information operations surrounding it are forcing Facebook and Twitter to make tough calls in real time and limiting their options to please everyone.

What's next: There's still nearly three weeks till Nov. 3, so expect more tough calls. And those on the left cheering should recognize that, sooner or later, Facebook or Twitter will turn down the volume on a questionable story that they have embraced.

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